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Sphere raises $2M to help employees lobby for green 401(k) plans

By Mike Butcher

In the United States, a 401(k) plan is an employer-sponsored defined-contribution pension account. However, with legacy institutional investing, most of these have at least some level of fossil fuel involvement and let’s face it, very few of us really know. Now a startup plans to change that.

California-based startup Sphere wants to get employees to ask their employers for investment options that are not invested in fossil fuels. To do that it’s offering financial products that make it easier – it says – for employers to offer fossil-free investment options in their 401(k) plans. This could be quite a big movement. Sphere says there are over $35 trillion in assets in retirement savings in the US as of Q1 2021.

It’s now raised a $2M funding round led by climatetech-focused VC Pale Blue Dot led the investment round. Also participating were climate-focused investors including Sundeep Ahuja of Climate Capital. Sphere is also a registered ‘Public Benefit Corporation’ allowing it to campaign in public about climate change.

Alex Wright-Gladstein, CEO and founder of Sphere said: “We are proud to be partnering with Pale Blue Dot on our mission to reverse climate change by making our money talk. Heidi, Hampus, and Joel have the experience and drive to help us make big changes on the short 7 year time scale that we have to limit warming to 1.5°C.” Wright-Gladstein has also teamed up with sustainable investing veteran Jason Britton of Reflection Asset Management and BITA custom indexes.

Wright-Gladstein said she learned the difficulty of offering fossil-free options in 401(k) plans when running her previous startup, Ayar Labs. She tried to offer a fossil-free option for employees, but found out it took would take three years to get a single fossil-free option in the plan.

Heidi Lindvall, General Partner at Pale Blue Dot said: “We are big believers in Sphere’s unique approach of raising awareness through a social movement while offering a range of low-cost products that address the structural issues in fossil-free 401(k) investing.”

Apple secures first states to support digital driver’s licenses, but privacy questions linger

By Zack Whittaker

Apple’s plan to digitize your wallet is slowly taking shape. What started with boarding passes and venue tickets later became credit cards, subway tickets, and student IDs. Next on Apple’s list to digitize are driver’s licenses and state IDs, which it plans to support in its iOS 15 update expected out later this year.

But to get there it needs help from state governments, since it’s the states that issue driver’s licenses and other forms of state identification, and every state issues IDs differently. Apple said today it has so far secured two states, Arizona and Georgia, to bring digital driver’s license and state IDs.

Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Utah are expected to follow, but a timeline for rolling out wasn’t given.

Apple said in June that it would begin supporting digital licenses and IDs, and that the TSA would be the first agency to begin accepting a digital license from an iPhone at several airports, since only a state ID is required for traveling by air domestically within the United States. The TSA will allow you to present your digital wallet by tapping it on an identity reader. Apple says the feature is secure and doesn’t require handing over or unlocking your phone.

The digital license and ID data is stored on your iPhone but a driver’s license must be verified by the participating state. That has to happen at scale and speed to support millions of drivers and travelers while preventing fake IDs from making it through.

The goal of digitizing licenses and IDs is convenience, rather than fixing a problem. But the move hasn’t exactly drawn confidence from privacy experts, who bemoan Apple’s lack of transparency about how it built this technology and what it ultimately gets out of it.

Apple still has not said much about how the digital ID technology works, or what data the state obtains as part of the process to enroll a digital license. Apple is working on a new security verification feature that takes selfies to validate the user. It’s not to say these systems aren’t inherently problematic, but there are privacy questions that Apple will have to address down the line.

But the fragmented picture of digital licenses and IDs across the U.S. isn’t likely to get less murky overnight, even after Apple enters the picture. A recent public records request by MuckRock showed Apple was in contact with some states as early as 2019 about bringing digital licenses and IDs to iPhones, including California and Illinois, yet neither state has been announced by Apple today.

Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Rhode Island are likely further behind, after finding out about Apple’s digital license plan the very day it was announced at WWDC.

CryptoPunks blasts past $1 billion in lifetime sales as NFT speculation surges

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review! Last week we dove into Bezos’s Blue Origin suing NASA. This week, I’m writing about the unlikely and triumphant resurgence of the NFT market.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The big thing

If I could, I would probably write about NFTs in this newsletter every week. I generally stop myself from actually doing so because I try my best to make this newsletter a snapshot of what’s important to the entire consumer tech sector, not just my niche interests. That said, I’m giving myself free rein this week.

The NFT market is just so hilariously bizarre and the culture surrounding the NFT world is so web-native, I can’t read about it enough. But in the past several days, the market for digital art on the blockchain has completely defied reason.

Back in April, I wrote about a platform called CryptoPunks that — at that point — had banked more than $200 million in lifetime sales since 2017. The little pop art pixel portraits have taken on a life of their own since then. It was pretty much unthinkable back then but in the past 24 hours alone, the platform did $141 million in sales, a new record. By the time you read this, the NFT platform will have likely passed a mind-boggling $1.1 billion in transaction volume according to crypto tracker CryptoSlam. With 10,000 of these digital characters, to buy a single one will cost you at least $450,000 worth of the Ethereum cryptocurrency. (When I sent out this newsletter yesterday that number was $300k)

When I published this back in April, the cheapest CryptoPunks were $30k, today the cheapest one available for sale is just shy of $300k https://t.co/X4iTSl6FjC

— Lucas Matney (@lucasmtny) August 27, 2021

It’s not just CryptoPunks either; the entire NFT world has exploded in the past week, with several billions of dollars flowing into projects with drawings of monkeys, penguins, dinosaurs and generative art this month alone. After the NFT rally earlier this year — culminating in Beeple’s $69 million Christie’s sale — began to taper off, many wrote off the NFT explosion as a bizarre accident. What triggered this recent frenzy?

Part of it has been a resurgence of cryptocurrency prices toward all-time-highs and a desire among the crypto rich to diversify their stratospheric assets without converting their wealth to fiat currencies. Dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into an NFT project with fewer stakeholders than the currencies that underlie them can make a lot of sense to those whose wealth is already over-indexed in crypto. But a lot of this money is likely FOMO dollars from investors who are dumping real cash into NFTs, bolstered by moves like Visa’s purchase this week of their own CryptoPunk.

I think it’s pretty fair to say that this growth is unsustainable, but how much further along this market growth gets before the pace of investment slows or collapses is completely unknown. There are no signs of slowing down for now, something that can be awfully exciting — and dangerous — for investors looking for something wild to drop their money into… and wild this market truly is.

Here’s some advice from Figma CEO Dylan Field who sold his alien CryptoPunk earlier this year for 4,200 Eth (worth $13.6 million today).

Just getting into NFT’s? Welcome!! It’s a fascinating world and this is just the very start :)

My unsolicited advice: exercise caution + restraint. There are a lot of speculators in the space right now. Buy things you love / plan to hold forever and don’t expect prices to go up!

— Dylan Field (@zoink) August 28, 2021


Image Credits: Kanye West

Other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

OnlyFans suspends its porn ban
In a stunning about-face, OnlyFans declared this week that they won’t be banning “sexually explicit content” from their platform after all, saying in a statement that they had “secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned October 1 policy change.”

Kanye gets into the hardware business
Ahead of the drop of his next album, which will definitely be released at some point, rapper Kanye West has shown off a mobile music hardware device called the Stem Player. The $200 pocket-sized device allows users to mix and alter music that has been loaded onto the device. It was developed in partnership with hardware maker Kano.

Apple settles developer lawsuit
Apple has taken some PR hits in recent years following big and small developers alike complaining about the take-it-or-leave-it terms of the company’s App Store. This week, Apple shared a proposed settlement (which still is pending a judge’s approval) that starts with a $100 million payout and gets more interesting with adjustments to App Store bylines, including the ability of developers to advertise paying for subscriptions directly rather than through the app only.

Twitter starts rolling out ticketed Spaces
Twitter has made a convincing sell for its Clubhouse competitor Spaces, but they’ve also managed to build on the model in recent months, turning its copycat feature into a product that succeeds on its own merits. Its latest effort to allow creators to sell tickets to events is just starting to roll out, the company shared this week.

CA judge strikes down controversial gig economy proposition
Companies like Uber and DoorDash dumped tens of millions of dollars into Prop 22, a law which clawed back a California law that pushed gig economy startups to classify workers as full employees. This week a judge declared the proposition unconstitutional, and though the decision has been stayed on appeal, any adjustment would have major ramifications for those companies’ business in California.


Image of a dollar sign representing the future value of cybersecurity.

Image Credits: guirong hao (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Future tech exits have a lot to live up to
“Inflation may or may not prove transitory when it comes to consumer prices, but startup valuations are definitely rising — and noticeably so — in recent quarters. That’s the obvious takeaway from a recent PitchBook report digging into valuation data from a host of startup funding events in the United States…”

OpenSea UX teardown
“…is the experience of creating and selling an NFT on OpenSea actually any good? That’s what UX analyst Peter Ramsey has been trying to answer by creating and selling NFTs on OpenSea for the last few weeks. And the short answer is: It could be much better...

Are B2B SaaS marketers getting it wrong?
“‘Solutions,’ ‘cutting-edge,’ ‘scalable’ and ‘innovative’ are just a sample of the overused jargon lurking around every corner of the techverse, with SaaS marketers the world over seemingly singing from the same hymn book. Sadly for them, new research has proven that such jargon-heavy copy — along with unclear features and benefits — is deterring customers and cutting down conversions…”


Thanks for reading! And again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

Lucas Matney

Zoom reaches $85M settlement in ‘Zoombombing’ lawsuit

By Carly Page

Zoom has agreed to pay $85 million to settle a lawsuit that accused the video conferencing giant of violating users’ privacy by sharing their data with third parties without permission and enabling “Zoombombing” incidents.

Zoombombing, a term coined by TechCrunch last year as its usage exploded because of the pandemic, describes unapproved attendees entering and disrupting Zoom calls by sharing offensive imagery, using backgrounds to spread hateful messages, or spouting slurs and profanities.

The lawsuit, filed in March 2020 in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, also accused the firm of sharing personal user data with third parties, including Facebook, Google and LinkedIn.

In addition to agreeing to an $85 million settlement, which could see customers receive a refund of either 15% of their subscription of $25 if the lawsuit achieves class-action status, Zoom has said it will take additional steps to prevent intruders from gatecrashing meetings. This will include alerting users when meeting hosts or other participants use third-party apps in meetings and offering specialized training to employees on privacy and data handling.

“The privacy and security of our users are top priorities for Zoom, and we take seriously the trust our users place in us,” Zoom said in a statement. “We are proud of the advancements we have made to our platform, and look forward to continuing to innovate with privacy and security at the forefront.”

The settlement requires approval from US District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California, to be finalized.

Sundae closes on $80M for residential real estate marketplace

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Sundae, a residential real estate marketplace that pairs sellers of dated or damaged property with potential buyers, has raised $80 million in a Series C funding round co-led by Fifth Wall and General Global Capital.

QED Investors, Wellington Management, Susa Ventures, Founders Fund, First American Financial, Prudence Holdings, Crossover VC, Intersect Capital, Gaingels and Oberndorf Ventures also participated in the financing. The round marks San Francisco-based Sundae’s third financing in a 13-month time frame, bringing its total raised since its August 2018 inception to $135 million. 

The San Francisco-based company declined to reveal at what valuation its Series C was raised. It also declined to provide hard revenue figures, saying only that it saw a 600% year-over-year increase in revenue from June 2020 to June 2021.

The startup aims to help people who need to sell dated or “damaged” properties for a variety of reasons — such as job loss, illness or divorce. In some cases, according to CEO and co-founder Josh Stech, such vulnerable sellers get taken advantage of by “predatory fix and flippers” seeking to capitalize on their misfortune. 

Since sellers in these situations don’t typically have the funds to fix up their properties before selling, Sundae lists the property for them on its platform – serving as an intermediary between sellers and investors. There, it is visible to about 2,600 qualified off-market buyers.

The company essentially aims to aggregate demand from “fix and flippers,” who use the marketplace to bid against each other for distressed properties. If the seller accepts and an inspection is completed, the company offers a $10,000 cash advance before closing to help homeowners with moving costs or other expenses.

Our goal is to displace wholesalers who exploit desperate or uninformed sellers and lock them into a contract which they turn around and assign to a property investor at a steep profit,” Stech said. “The tens of thousands of dollars in lost equity that goes to a wholesaler could mean the difference between paying off debts, or having enough money to retire.”

Sundae claims that on average, sellers receive 10 offers within three days on its marketplace.

Since its launch in January 2019, the startup has slowly been expanding its marketplace geographically. It went from operating in four markets in California at the end of last year to now operating in 14 markets across Florida, Colorado, Georgia, Texas and Utah.

Sundae makes money by charging buyers in its investor marketplace a fee when it “assigns” them a property. 

In the first quarter of this year, the startup launched a dedicated online marketplace for investors, where they can view properties and submit offers. Once an investor signs up to join the marketplace, they can access the full inventory of properties, including information such as photos, floor plan, 3D walkthrough and a third-party inspection report. 

Looking ahead, the company plans to use its new capital to expand to new markets, invest in its platform and “build brand awareness.” It also, of course, plans to boost its current headcount of 180 mostly remote employees.

Vik Chawla, a partner at Fifth Wall, believes Sundae is serving a segment of the residential real estate market that has historically been overlooked. 

“Their marketplace model simultaneously solves a crucial pain point for sellers by disrupting the wholesale industry, while delivering a platform that property investors can count on for reliable investment opportunities,” he said.

The company last raised $36 million in a Series B funding round in December 2020.

Interestingly, a slew of angel investors — including a number of athletes and celebrities — also put money in the company’s latest round, including: actor Will Smith, DJ Kygo, three-time NFL Super Bowl champion Richard Seymour of 93 Ventures, NFL All-Pro DK Metcalf of the Seattle Seahawks, Matt Chapman of the Oakland A’s, Alex Caruso of the Los Angeles Lakers, Aaron Gordon of the Denver Nuggets, Solomon Hill of the Atlanta Hawks, Kelly Olynyk of the Houston Rockets, NBA All-Star Isaiah Thomas, three-time NBA Champion & Gold Medalist Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors, Hassan Whiteside of the Sacramento Kings, Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors and 2020 U.S. Soccer Player of the Year and Juventus midfielder, Weston McKennie.

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